When health and humanitarian emergencies strike – and demand is unknown, response time is limited and resources are limited – stronger coordination and information sharing between humanitarian actors appears to be a solution that will help organizations to achieve both economic efficiency and program objectives. International and national humanitarian NGOs can share information relating to the emergency, number of people affected in specific areas, availability of resources (e.g., medical supplies, food and humanitarian personnel), jointly prioritize target beneficiary groups and distribute tasks to avoid duplication.
Yet in every health and humanitarian emergency, we hear reports of humanitarian organizations failing to coordinate with each other. The global response to COVID-19 has also been criticized for the lack of coordination between international and national actors. We ask, why? Experts attribute the lack of coordination to many reasons, including differences in organizational structure, strategic plans and donor interests (e.g. different priorities and objectives), lack of mutual trust and respect (especially between a large international organization and a local agency), unfavorable operating conditions, and high level of demand and supply uncertainty. We posit that there is yet another reason that discourages aid agencies from coordinating: competition for media exposure.
It is easy to criticize humanitarian organizations for inefficiencies and other flaws in their coordination functions. But a closer look at issues such as media exposure and coordination incentives shows more clearly that, given their current funding model, their actions may be rational institutional behavior.
Humanitarian organizations depend on resources from individual donations, national bilateral donors, multilateral donors and private philanthropy for growth and survival. The media play a vital role in the donation revenue of humanitarian organizations, especially for those that depend on small individual donations, but coordination can dilute the media attention that individual organizations receive. Some believe that the desire to attract media attention, particularly during the early stages of humanitarian response, even prevents humanitarian organizations from share operational information with other organizations. Are these perceptions correct?
In a recent article two of us (ME and SW) and our co-authors study operational performance, media citations, and institutional and individual giving for 23 humanitarian organizations over a 10-year period. We empirically demonstrate that donations are influenced by the media exposure of humanitarian organizations by explaining why humanitarian organizations compete for media attention and avoid coordination. Media exposure affects both public donations and institutional grants, but with some differences: (i) media exposure has a positive effect on individual donations in the same year and on institutional grants the following year; and (ii) individual donations are highly dependent on media citations, while institutional grants are dependent on both media exposure and HO’s operational performance. However, the data shows us that many humanitarian organizations rely more on public donations than on institutional grants. For example, in 2019, charitable giving from US citizens totaled more than $300 billion, while total giving from corporations and foundations was $300 billion. less than $97 billion.Media attention, particularly on television, obviously focuses on the brands seen on screen, and thus plays a central role in the tactical choices of humanitarian organisations.
Finally, the role of social media should not be ignored. We are seeing an increasing use of social media in relation to health and humanitarian emergencies. Although it has resulted in an increase in total donations, it can also reduce the intensity of coordination desired by each humanitarian organization and negatively affect operational performance. A paradox is that the more effective social media is in connecting the general public to humanitarian needs, the more likely it is to influence HOs to devote more effort to media attention and less to working together to improve operational performance. .
Our research shows that humanitarian organizations’ reservations about peer coordination, while not ideal for all beneficiaries, are unfortunately well founded. Their willingness to coordinate may be even weaker during emergency operations or more severe disasters that receive more media attention. Similarly, during mega-disasters, humanitarian services may be distributed in regions under the media spotlight. The media also play an important public service role in disaster management by broadcasting alerts, warnings and advisories and providing information and guidance to the affected public. They can also play a useful role in highlighting the need for donations for a given health and humanitarian crisis, both to the public and to government and other donors. Thus, it may not be prudent to discourage media coverage of humanitarian operations.
So what can be done to promote better coordination? UN cluster mechanisms are an example of attempts to facilitate coordination between humanitarian organizations. However, the link between the grant from UN agencies and the contributions of HOs in the clusters remains ambiguous. Bureaucracy within centralized clusters and loose connections within decentralized clusters make them less efficient. Additionally, smaller/local SHs tend to be marginalized in the cluster system and discourage them from joining such a coalition.
The heavy reliance on large intermediaries/international NGOs means that donations are not allocated objectively to the greatest needs, but rather to the most effective international humanitarian organizations to promote their mandate in the media. New avenues must be explored that allow more channeling of individual and institutional aid according to the results obtained. Perhaps a coordination model organized around the needs of first-line aid recipients rather than around the global humanitarian NGO funding model (which depends on media exposure) might help?
Cash programming is another way around this problem. Humanitarian crises and emergency responses occur in a wide range of contexts, in some cases when local supply systems are completely broken down and inadequate, cash-based programming is unfeasible. Where possible, replacing the model of donating humanitarian supplies with cash-based programming — while diluting the tangible benefits of showing photos of supplies arriving or being distributed to recipients — could even better help those in need materially.
In addition to humanitarian organizations and their funders, news organizations and the media also need to engage more on this critically important topic. For example, since training on the code of conduct for reporting on humanitarian crises is often mandatory for many media outlets, coordination and related topics should be part of this effort.
There may be no silver bullet to changing media incentives for humanitarian organizations and most solutions will require reform of the funding model. During this time a focus more on performance results and communicate them to the general public can dilute the incentives to focus too much on media exposure and will put more emphasis on coordination.